Interview – Mauro Borrelli

Interview – Mauro Borrelli

An award-winning director with a background in art, Mauro Borrelli is a unique talent who has worked in film for nearly four decades now. An artist at heart, working as an illustrator on many projects, he has worked alongside the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Burton, and Gore Verbinski, just to name a few. So, what does someone like Borrelli do with such experience? Make his own films of course!

Doing just that in recent years he has taken the reins for several feature films including The Ghostmaker in 2012, The Recall in 2017, and most recently, Mindcage in 2022. Starring John Malkovich, Martin Lawrence, and Melissa Roxburgh, Mindcage is a classic cat-and-mouse type Thriller in the vein of classics like Silence of Lambs (1991). Heavily leaning toward the side of a noir style film, Mauro Borrelli recently sat down to talk about his approach to filmmaking, the importance of color in film, plus a lot more. 

Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in filmmaking for many years as a visual artist, director, writer, and producer. Briefly tell us, how would you describe your incredible journey in film to this point?
Mauro Borrelli – I was a classically trained painter in Rome, fascinated by Renaissance Art. Those great masters had to tell their “stories” (typically religious or mythological) with a single image. This particular storytelling aspect in figurative art was what always interested me. Then, one day I got a job creating a replica of a Raphael painting (Pope Leone X) for a film production, and was invited to visit the set (Florence Uffizi). It was my very first time on a movie set. I became fascinated by the idea of telling a story with multiple pictures. So, I soon found myself in Hollywood. Because of my skill in visual art, it was natural for me to enter the club as an art department guy, and I began producing concept designs for a variety of films. But my instincts always brought me back to the storytelling aspect.
I felt that the film director was the one actually “painting the canvas,” while the art director only stretched the canvas for the director to paint. So, I began to focus on the narrative aspect and honed my writing skills (which has been a passion of mine since childhood).
Cryptic Rock – Very fascinating. As mentioned, you have a very broad resume of work. Much of your work has been in art development; and you have worked on a list of big film productions as an illustrator. Visual aspects of a film are extremely important. So, what is like creating artistic concepts for motion pictures?
Mauro Borrelli – Working in concept art was a great opportunity for me to explore the minds of some of the best directors in the world. To see how masters — like Francis Ford Coppola — process information and develop ideas. Bernardo Bertolucci and Ang Lee gave me confidence. Terry Gilliam taught me how to make the best use of my imagination and how to take risks. And I learned the value of approaching ideas from various POVs, thanks to directors like Tim Burton — who share a background in art.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest / Buena Vista 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Movie Poster / Walt Disney Studios 

Cryptic Rock – Those are all some really talented directors in the world of film and it sounds like you took a lot of your working experiences. While you have worked heavily in art departments through the years, you have also worked as a director on your own films. Is directing something you have always wanted to pursue?
Mauro Borrelli – During my elementary school days, in Verona, Italy, I did so well in writing and literature, that one of my teachers recommended I attend this particular high school, which put an emphasis on Latin and Old Greek, and reading endless literature. The teacher envisioned a career in law for me. And my father, who happened to be a local town judge, was thrilled with this idea. But I was terrified.
So, to prevent that from happening, I stopped reading and writing and went to art school instead. Only years later did my old passion reemerge, when writing became a necessity to succeed as a filmmaker.
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) That is one way to not follow a career path laid out for you. And here we are all these years later with your lengthy career in film! Among your directing credits you have worked on a list of Horror and Sci-Fi themed films. Are these two genres you enjoy working in?
Mauro Borrelli – Yes, but I learned that when you do those genres you better have a proper budget. We are now living in a world with a very sophisticated audience. So, yes, I’d love to make more Horror and Sci-Fi films, if I’m given the resources allowing me to create something very special. So that I can take the visuals to another level. I’d love to direct a Sci-Fi detective story in the vein of Blade Runner (1982). I love what Guillermo Del Toro does, and hopefully one day, if an opportunity presented itself, he’d consider being a producer on one of my projects.

The Ghostmaker Movie Poster / Lionsgate Home Video

The Recall Movie Poster / Freestyle Releasing

Cryptic Rock – That would be really compelling to see. Your latest work is the recently released Thriller Mindcage. How did this project come about for you?
Mauro Borrelli – I wanted to make a detective story, in film noir style. But I also wanted to mix in some of my background in fine art. So, I started working on Mindcage’s premise with my writer, Reggie Keyohara III, and together we developed a story that would allow us to combine those two themes.
Cryptic Rock – It makes for an interesting viewing experience. Much like your other work, Mindcage is visually extremely beautiful. What was your approach to the color pallet and overall atmospheric look of the film?
Mauro Borrelli – Color and tone are based on the religious paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy. Which feature lots of golds and reds. With my DOP Gustavo, we looked at some art and some moody photography from the film Seven (1995). Our production designer, Nava, did a great job with the prison cell set. A note on the prison cell set: It was built on a theater stage in Springdale, Arkansas. The cell walls are painted with green/gray color, while John Malkovich (the convicted), wears a red uniform — he’s the devil inside a “pure” environment. Opposite him, during his confrontation with Mary (Melissa Roxburgh), she wears greenish, gray clothes, while the walls around her are red— she represents “purity” inside Malkovich’s hell.
Cryptic Rock – Wow… what a great use of color within the story. You have a history of working with some extremely accomplished actors and actresses. With Mindcage you have a dynamic cast that includes John Malkovich, Martin Lawrence, and Melissa Roxburgh. What was it like working with them?
Mauro Borrelli – It was great obviously. John’s skill is amazing. This is the kind of role he can flourish in. The role needed someone “manipulative,” and John is a master of that. Melissa was an amazing choice. I was looking for an actress that had two qualities at the same time: was credible as a leader and authoritarian — but at the same time, fragile. She was perfect for that! Martin was challenging himself to play a serious and more dramatic role. And he did a great job on that. I admire him for taking a chance. He was always in character. Hours before entering the set he was already in the role. So, I guess those curious fans that came to the set hoping to see him crack jokes or be funny, didn’t get any of that.

Melissa Roxburgh & Martin Lawrence in Mindcage (2022) / Lionsgate

Cryptic Rock – Yes, and it is great to see Martin Lawrence in such a different role. Many of your films have been based on fantastical stories. This is whereas Mindcage is more reality based in story concept and film style. How would you compare working in more fantastical based plots opposed to more of a reality-based plot?
Mauro Borrelli – I think the audience will be able to see a “fantastic” component in Mindcage. More grounded with reality, but still present. I’m a big fan of Shamyalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). Probably instead of fantastic stories, I may want to focus on more believable stories (with fantastic elements) in the future.
Cryptic Rock – That would be fun to see happen somewhere down the line. Last question. On Cryptic Rock we cover a broad range of film, but have strong concentration in Horror and Sci-Fi. What are some of your personal favorite Horror films?
Mauro Borrelli – So many. But a few are Alien (1979), The Fly (1986), The Exorcist (1973), The Sixth Sense, The Purge (2013), A Quiet Place (2018), 28 Days Later (2002), and Let Me In (2010).

Mindcage movie poster / Lionsgate

For more on Mauro Borrelli: 

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